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Author Topic: Experiences with worldbuilding  (Read 19882 times)

Offline Yora

Experiences with worldbuilding
« on: February 17, 2015, 10:20:24 PM »
Worldbuilding is always an interesting subject. The most common advice given to writers seems to be "don't overdo it, it's wasted time and will be annoying if you put it all into your story when you have too much". Which of course is very much true and writers should look out not to prepare too much background information that will never get used or put too much of that information into a story that is not necessary for the plot.

However, this does not really help at all with the questions how you actually do prepare a good world for your stories. So let's talk about that.

My own background is primarily from roleplaying games, where I have prepared worlds for my players to play in for years. But since I started getting interested in writing literature, one of the first things I noticed is that worldbuilding for stories is much, much easier and requires way less work. One of the biggest mistakes that people regularly make when creating worlds for games, but probably is much less common among writers, is to make a world first with no real plan how they want to use it later. That's a very bad approach that regularly creates bland and completely interchangeable worlds. I highly recommend tailoring your world specifically to the needs of the specific stories you want to tell. And that means first to make descisions about genre, atmosphere, "visual style", and overarching themes. Do you want to make something more heroic or epic in style? Will it be early modern, medieval, ancient, or even prehistoric? Do you want to evoke a familiarity with Europe or Asia? Maybe Africa or America, or something that doesn't resemble any specific place on Earth at all (more on that later*). Do you want to stay local or visit many different places? Do you want the option to hop around all over the world with episodic stories, or follow a single route in a heroes journey?

All these things determine what parts of the world you will actually have to develop. They also can make a difference for how you will create certain things, which is why you need to make these descisions right at the beginning. If you later change your mind or leave the descision for a later time, some of the things you have created might end up useless and redundant. And one thing that is important to understand is that you can't simply change any element on a whim later one. Once an image of something has taken hold in your mind it persists, and you will try to keep them that way even when you realize their current form isn't really ideal for your needs. You set out to replace them and then still end up creating basically the same thing again. Another factor are interpedencencis. Worldbuildig that seems really solid and satisfying comes from all the elements of the world being connected and building on each other. When you work out these five kingdoms and create their shared history over the past 1000 years and then later decide you actually rather have six, there is a good chance that it will show. The new one just won't have the same connections, you can see the seams. Same thing when you remove  certain element. If you decide at a later point you actually don't want to have any desert nomads and make the land they inhabited completely dead, all the fortresses on the desert edge seem rather pointless and why is there a big trade city on a road that is a dead end? Why are the locals influenced heavily by that culture on the other side of the uncrossable desert and where did they get those mercenaries who saved them against their neighboring enemy when the war had seemed already lost?

These examples are all things that can be fixed later. But it will probably never get as good as it would have been if everything had grown together side by side instead of one after the other. And it's additional work that could have been used on other things.

One thing that new worldbuilders for roleplaying games need constantly reminded of is that they only need to create details that will directly affect their audience in some way. Same thing with literature, except that the audience in that case are the point of view characters. If you want to write about politics and life at court, you need to do preparatory work on the structure of the government. This will almost certainly become vital for the story. You also need to create characters to fill many of the jobs at the court. If the story is about explorers of old ruins, all you might need is some clerk who hires them to find something for his boss. Who this boss actually is might be completely irrelevant for your plot, and he might never even get a name. If you want to write about some thieves in the slums who won't get involved with politics, the only parts of government that might be interesting are the magistrate, the judge, and the captain of the guard. Who rules the city or country and how government works could be left blank and doesn't have to come up in the story at all.
If you already know your work will be limited to a single country or city, you don't have to worry about how long distance transportation works. If you want to write something episodic where the protagonists end up in all kinds of different places you will only know about once you start thinking about a new plot for a story, this information might be quite handy. If they are going to Neustadt by ship and you already established that Neustadt is a port town in previous stories, readers will notice and the world seems more real.
And this is the big advantage of writing literature over writing for games: You have a very high degree of certainty knowing which places your characters will go to and what circles of society they will interact with. This allows you to scratch a huge amount of possible items of the worldbuilding to-do list.

*One thought on creating completely original worlds: It can be done, but there is a huge and invaluable advantage of repurposing places from Earths history. It allows you to just give a few key details about a culture or landscape and the readers imagination can fill in all the blanks with details they remember from the source that inspired you. Even though you say very little, the readers still see complex and detailed societies and locations.
Personally I prefer not to rely too heavily on this and not have any Vikings and Mongols in my world that only have a slightly different name. A great little trick to be both original and recognizable is to take a culture and put it into a quite different environment, or two blend two different cultures together. A great example of the later I've seen in the videogame series Warcraft. The Night Elves, apart from being elves, combine Scandinavian with Japanese elements. The result doesn't resemble either. In the world I am working on there is one human culture that is Chinese who used to live like Scythians but now transformed their society into Swedes.
Common fantasy races like elves and dwarves have become so well known with fantasy readers that they work just the same as archetypes than Vikings or Egyptians. While these are fictional, you can use them as well to mine for elements for your cultures. I have a race of little green men with large ears who are druids and alchemists but also build fortresses and mines like dwarves.

I'd be very interested to hear what kinds of worlds you have created for your works and what experiences you have made with them.
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2015, 10:51:27 PM »
Nahhhh, I just wing it.  ;)

Offline Jmack

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #2 on: February 18, 2015, 12:45:25 AM »
I've been thinking about writing for, oh, 45 years, and have made a number of short-lived false starts.  Unlike may folks who post on F-F, I'm not someone who writes constantly.  In fact, it's only been since discovering F-F that I've started to have a bit of a renaissance in writing.  So, my world building experiences are limited.

But something interesting happened the other day.  I was writing what I thought would be a sword & sorcery novella, and allowing things to flow as they wanted to.  All of sudden, the world I was building on-the-fly linked itself to the one I spent many hours creating when I was 15.  My tough guy character became a new version of one of those long ago imagined heroes.  And as new things were being worked in, especially about the magic system, they began to explain and expand on what I'd imagined back then.  There are still some problems with all this: some of the old concepts don't fit well with the new ones, while others - integrated - are better and more fun.

Here's something that I keep thinking about: mystery.  Yes, by the end of Hero of the Ages, Sanderson leaves a number of loose threads in his magic system so that he can explore these in future books; but overall, the purpose of the Mistborn series seems to have been to explore and explain metal burning.  Meanwhile, I think about R.E. Howard, Tolkien, Le Guin and others who have magic in their worlds, have cosmology, they know all of it in the background, but the stories are about the stories and the people - not about the magic systems.

I think this goes to some of your word-building ideas, Yora.  I think you need the bones of the whole thing, but don't need to flesh it all out.  Le Guin certainly didn't need to have thought out all the places and cultures for the three of the Earthsea books, but she did need a framework.  God bless him, Tolkien was an obsessive (how did he ever have a son, no less a wife?), who had enormous amounts figured out.  Did he need it all?  Probably not, but it found its way into the stories and made you really believe in the whole thing.

I'm working on my story/novella/whatever tonight, and I'm not writing.  I'm working out the world.  Then I'll do some writing, bump into thing that don't work, and iterate on the whole thing.  t the end, I hope I have a story that doesn't explain everything, but leaves the reader with a solid sense that this place is real even if mysterious.
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Offline Skip

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2015, 05:29:41 AM »
I view story and worldbuilding as a dialectic. Neglect one and you do harm to the other. While it may seem logical to start with one and derive the other, that's now how it has worked in my experience.

My world of Altearth is our Earth, but instead of barbarians invading the Roman Empire, it was monsters (goblins, orcs, etc.). As they penetrated the Empire, they also brought magic.

Now, you might think at first that my world building would be easy. I have the climate, the geography, even the history all set, though with lots of room to fiddle with the history. But I have had to invest an enormous amount of work, in three specific respects.

One, how to integrate magic into a historical narrative that is, for the most part, unchanged from Earth history (and Earth physics).

Two, where to put all those creatures. Given the geography of Europe, where do elves live? Wouldn't the presence of dragons cause some changes in architecture? And so on.

Three, how to make significant changes to Earth history while keeping the basic thread intact. For example, if it's goblins rather than Goths invading in 376 AD, where do they go after they are finally defeated? Does Theodosius still succeed Valens? Or, more significantly, do orcs conquer Constantinople in 1453? If so, what do I do with all that Ottoman history? And so on.

I could have tried working all that out, but I took a different path. I'm just writing stories here and there. I wrote one set in the 1950s, another in the 1400s, and my current one is that 376 invasion that's the start of it all. As I write the stories, I fill in bits here and there. It's been like playing jazz--I have a theme, but I can riff with great freedom as long as I come back to the main theme.

Is this a good approach? Give me 20 years and I'll let you know!
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #4 on: February 18, 2015, 11:05:42 AM »
To me this has some very clear parallels to the planning vs discovery writing debate, though it's a bit more one-sided in terms of what most people think. It's something I've thought about a lot, since I don't agree with a lot of the advice given about it.

This is a long post, so I think I'll add a couple of headings...  8)


"don't overdo it, it's wasted time and will be annoying if you put it all into your story when you have too much"

I've always disagreed with that, because it's based on two assumptions that I don't think are necessarily true. First, it assumes that extensive worldbuilding wastes time. Second, it assumes that you'll put too much of the information into the story. Both are very real traps that people often fall into, but neither is inevitable. My assumption (which could also be wrong) is that by "extensive worldbuilding", we mean worlds built in more detail and scale than is strictly necessary for the specific story being told.


Assumption One: Time

In terms of time taken, you can create both breadth and depth in a surprisingly short period of time. It's possible to create an overview of how society develops over millenia very quickly, especially if you aim to explain it in a condensed form. You can then elaborate and add detail to the time periods that interest you. In other words, you create an outline for the history of your world, instead of discovering it as you go along.

For example, to describe the central story of over a thousand years of a continent's history in one paragraph (roughly based on Europe, with minor changes):

A wealthy and powerful trading nation spent centuries expanding via a combination of conquest and treaties, eventually creating a mighty empire encompassing the entire continent. Unable to sustain its strength due to environmental and political stress, the empire declined and eventually split in two. The western half shattered into competing nations who jostled and warred for position and prestige. The eastern half reorganised and remained strong for centuries, eventually re-conquering much of the old empire. This new empire echoed the original by declining and disintegrating, and was eventually conquered by invaders from the east.

You could easily expand that forwards and backwards in time as well as sideways into different regions. Once you have that kind of overview, it's then easy to single out specific times and places that are relevant to your plans (or that simply interest you) in order to add some depth. When you focus on specific moments in time, the broad description gives you guidelines as to what caused the events you're focusing on and what direction you want them to take - just like a story outline. You can add smaller conflicts within the overall flow of history, add more detail and nuance to the central story, etc.


Assumption Two: Exposition

The second assumption is easily avoided: just put in what is absolutely necessary for the story to be understood. Easier said than done, obviously, but I don't think the only answer is to just not build a detailed world. It just takes a bit of practice, skill, and a certain amount of restraint to pull it off. Again, it's a clear parallel to the arguments for and against planning/discovery writing in my opinion.


Benefits of Extensive Worldbuilding

I also think there are benefits to extensive worldbuilding if you do it well. It helps when creating a dynamic world instead of a static backdrop, and allows you to create some meaningful history and myth for your world instead of throwaway phrases that might not connect with each other particularly well.

In the context of a single book/series, an extensively developed world can help in a number of different ways as well. It can help you create interesting characters that fit perfectly in their time and place, and avoid characters who don't belong there. It can help give your setting a stronger and more consistent feeling, because it's been created beforehand instead of improvised.

It can also be a great way of coming up with interesting plots. For example, several novels in James Clavell's Asian Saga are based on specific turning points in the history of eastern Asia - the origin of the Tokugawa shogunate and the founding of Hong Kong to give two examples. Creating a broad history of a fictional world can highlight the points in the world's history where events converge, points where you can write a story in which your characters have a hand in the course of history without drifting into cliche. I think the Liveships trilogy is a great example of how this can work, it's definitely one of the reasons I find those books so compelling.

A huge advantage is that it allows you to explore multiple points in the history of the world without having to worry so much about contradicting yourself. When writing the first book/series, you already know the general shape of the other events you want to explore. Again, I think that's a parallel to the plot/discovery debate, just on an even higher multi-series level.

Once you start doing that, it also allows you to play with the corruption of history; the way the story of the past becomes distorted and altered over time. People from different places within the same time period might see history in completely different ways, and that gives you potential conflict between characters that includes worldbuilding naturally into the story, while creating mystery from the reader's perspective if they don't know what really happened. I think it's easier to do this if you yourself know what really happened, because you can then work out plausible ways in which that history can be distorted.

There's a lot of potential there. While it's possible to make it all up as you write and hit those targets, I think it'd be more difficult doing it that way.


However...

With all that said, it's important to note that I think the initial spark can come from either direction. Creating a world for the fun of it can help you generate a huge number of connected stories. Coming up with a story first can be the beginning of an interesting world world. In either case, a more developed world can help make the story shine.

Also, I agree with @Skip that the two often go hand in hand. We often switch from one to the other (or do both at once) while we're planning things, because plot can inform worldbuilding and the world world can inform plot development.

 :)
« Last Edit: February 18, 2015, 11:35:20 AM by Raptori »
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Offline Yora

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #5 on: February 18, 2015, 01:12:11 PM »
Oh, I am very much in favor of quite extensive worldbuilding. The benefits you get from that are indeed huge and invaluable. But I also think that's the reason why you should keep your focus in mind. For a Pirate setting, you want to have background information that enables you to come up with great pirate characters and the people pirates are dealing with. So concentrate on working out the details for harbors, pirate nests, and military bases. You don't have to limit your worldbuilding exclusively to these parts of the world. But it's more than wise to regularly stop and think if that thing you are just working on will actually be that important. It would be unfortunate if you one day find yourself writing and not having a clue about how sea trade in the Carribean is working but you have figured out all political infighting at the courts in Europe. You might still have a great setting for a 17th century political story set in Europe and you could write about that instead. But it's easy to avoid getting into such situations by frequently examining what you are doing and how it relates to the goal you are pursing.

The comment about a thousand years of european history reminds me of one of my favorite examples of worldbuilding I've come across so far. The universe and history of the videogame series Mass Effect. These three games are pretty long and extensive, taking easily 80 hours and more to get through all of them. And I think the setting is one of the most interesting and authentic feeling that I've seen. Which the writers really accomplished with just five historic events. Just five pretty simple events over several centuries in an entire galaxy. But these events are wonderful setups for so many things and I think wonderful examples of how you can make history work for you. You don't need anything like a long list of wars and genealogies that spen dozens of generations like Tolkien did to set things up. It can be much more simple:
Spoiler for Hiden:
  • 2,000 years ago the Asari and Salarians needed a way to fight an almost unbeatable swarm of alien insects that were overrunning their planets. So they went to the world of the Krogan and taught them how to use spaceships and gave them all the weapons they want to fight the insect aliens. Once the Krogan had won, they didn't even think about stopping their campaigns of conquest and attacked colonies of their former allies instead. The Salarians and Turians eventually developed a bioweapon which infected all Krogan and causes almost all Krogan eggs to die before hatching, keeping their population barely stable at a very low level. The Turians say it was war and they had no choice, and the Salarians say it's the humane solution instead of outright destroying the entire human species and refuse to develop a cure for the disease. The Krogan very much disagree and lack all motivation to rebuild their world. What's the point if they can never regain their former greatness? Other species agree that something had to be done to keep the Krogans in check, but this seems entirely out of proportion.
  • 300 years ago the Quarians build a race of intelligent machines to serve as workers. When the machines started to show self awareness, the Quarians tried to shut them down. It didn't work and the machines fought back, eventually forcing the Quarians to evacuate the entire population from their homeworld and the nearby colonies. The entire species has been living on spaceships with terrible overpopulation with disastrous effects on their health. Now they are space gypsies, disliked by everyone. And they know exactly who to blame: Intelligent machines.
  • 100 years ago humans found an abandoned alien research station on Mars. From the machines they could get enough information to be able to build spaceships that can go to other stars, forcefields, artificial gravity, and, levitation devices, and had access to almost unlimited energy from very small power sources.
  • 25 years ago the humans first encountered the Turians and the two species usual approach to deal with strangers didn't mesh and they immediately got into a pretty violent war. Eventually the allies of the Turians stepped in and sorted things out and a few years later the humans were even invited to join their alliance. Many older turian and human soldiers still have severe reservations about each other, even though the younger people discovered that the two species have a lot more in common with each other than with anyone else.
  • 10 years ago new humans build new colonies near the border of Batarian space, which is pretty much completely controlled by pirates and slavers. At one point it all flared up into an extremely brutal and devastating war with the Batarian warlords with the humans won only with huge casualties and losses. The allies of the humans said they had warned them about colonizing that region and so it's not their problem. The government on the Batarian homeworld says the warlords are not under their command, so it's not their problem either. Even though the destruction of human colonies suits them very well. Usually, humans and Batarians in the same room is a fight waiting to happen.
And that's really all there is. There is nothing else to know that you would need to understand any of the complex relationships and interactions between the species and many of the factions. And what I find very interesting is that none of these events mention any specific characters. There is also virtually no mention of other events in the history of each of the species. You learn very little about how their homeworlds are governed, even though you get to meet many of their head of states. Nothing about the ecosystems and wildlife on their planets and things like that. Because this story takes almost entirely place on spaceships or uninhabited planets. If the characters are never going to visit these many worlds and interact with the locals, it's not needed.
When you know what your story is about and where it will take place, you can get a very long will with amazingly little worldbuilding.

Now if you take for example The Lord of the Rings and know a lot about the background setting, there are actually numerous references to places, events, and people of the past all over the place. Weathertop has a long history, Moria has a long history. The giant statues of Gondorian kings have a history and the people they represent have a long history. Having characters mention them adds a lot of depths and atmosphere to the story.
But here's the dirty little secret: You can also make such references even if they don't actually refer to anything. "The door to the tomb of King Drognar shows him slaying the beast Slogthor with his magic axe Flamebeard, such ending the 300 year reign of the Dragon Lords." To make this reference, you don't actually need to have any clue who Drognar was, what this Sloghtor was, and who the Dragon Lords where and what they did those 300 years. To the readers it won't make any difference. If you can occasionally link these references with each other they will seem even more meaningful. But you really don't need to have any real history behind them. 2,000 years ago a guy names Armenius destroyed an entire Roman legion in a trap, forever ending all attempts to expand the Roman advances into Germania. That's a cool story, even though there probably are only a tiny handful of people who know a bit more about the entire complex situation of tribal connections and alliances and economic factors both among the Germanic tribes of the regions and the entire enterprise of Roman colonies. All factors that were hugely important for the buildup to the battle and the aftermath that followed it, but nobody really cares much for them.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #6 on: February 18, 2015, 01:29:37 PM »
Yeah that's a great example, shows how much mileage you can get from a small amount of information.

I'm still ambivalent about throwaway references without any substance behind them, but I do see your point. The inspiration for the world my partner and I have built was a throwaway reference in one of the Farseer books (I think). That reference led very quickly to an unusual and complex society, if you can do that within your own books then I guess it can be a good way of developing and broadening your world.
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Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #7 on: February 19, 2015, 01:25:12 PM »
But here's the dirty little secret: You can also make such references even if they don't actually refer to anything. "The door to the tomb of King Drognar shows him slaying the beast Slogthor with his magic axe Flamebeard, such ending the 300 year reign of the Dragon Lords." To make this reference, you don't actually need to have any clue who Drognar was, what this Sloghtor was, and who the Dragon Lords where and what they did those 300 years. To the readers it won't make any difference. If you can occasionally link these references with each other they will seem even more meaningful. But you really don't need to have any real history behind them.

Yes, of course you can do that, but I've found that, if I put in something like that, I want to find out what's behind it. One passing comment like that I made actually led directly to my novel At An Uncertain Hour. I wouldn't have written that if I hadn't made the off-the-cuff comment, but also if I hadn't followed it up. Tolkien did something similar with the cats of Queen Beruthiel - he apparently didn't have a clue at the time what the reference meant, but he subsequently found out.

I find that world-building works best as an equal partner of the actual writing. It's a kind of leap-frog - something in the world-making will give me an idea for a story, which will include some reference to a country or a historical period I hadn't developed, so I'll work that out and get an idea for another story... etc.

Offline Yora

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #8 on: February 19, 2015, 03:43:40 PM »
Even if you do the worldbuilding only after you already have a good plot outline, knowing the world in which the story takes place helps you a lot with going beyond just the simple sequence of events and really making the whole thing come alive. Just knowing who does what and why is only half of what makes a good story, especially when it comes to fantasy.
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Offline Yora

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #9 on: February 22, 2015, 06:27:39 AM »
How much detail do you put into defining how the world came into being in the first place at the beginning of time? This is something I see a lot of people start with, but generally it seems to be something that is really completely irrelevant for pretty much anything.
Tolkien did it, so lots of people also do it. But Tolkien had a reason for it and had it part of his actual stories.

I touched on it only very briefly, and that is mostly as context for the magic system and doesn't enter in either religion or history to any meaningful degree.
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Offline Henry Dale

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #10 on: February 22, 2015, 08:10:51 AM »
I put a crazy amount of detail in my "beginning of time", because the early species left more than just archaeological sites. They influenced many things to shape the world as we know it.
Then again there is near to a volume dedicated entirely to this first era so not worldbuilding for it would make no sense.

Offline Rukaio_Alter

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #11 on: February 22, 2015, 11:24:55 AM »
How much detail do you put into defining how the world came into being in the first place at the beginning of time? This is something I see a lot of people start with, but generally it seems to be something that is really completely irrelevant for pretty much anything.
Tolkien did it, so lots of people also do it. But Tolkien had a reason for it and had it part of his actual stories.

I touched on it only very briefly, and that is mostly as context for the magic system and doesn't enter in either religion or history to any meaningful degree.
Embarrassingly, I fell into this trap when I first started my book. I wrote a long prologue of the origin of my world which had barely anything to do with the story I was telling and 90% of which ended up being changed anyway. Luckily, someone else pointed how pointless it was and I cut it. Now, while I do have a very loose (and far more awesome) idea of the current origin of my world, it's not going to get more than a passing mention at best.

At a guess though, I think the main reasons many writers do it is because a) it seems very epic and biblical (key word being seems), b ) it's an easy way to do exposition and c) people are afraid that if you don't know the entire history, background and most prevalent type of soil of the world from the first chapter, you somehow won't be interested in reading the rest.
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Offline Jmack

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #12 on: February 22, 2015, 12:07:01 PM »
I think the main reasons many writers do it is because a) it seems very epic and biblical (key word being seems), b ) it's an easy way to do exposition and c) people are afraid that if you don't know the entire history, background and most prevalent type of soil of the world from the first chapter, you somehow won't be interested in reading the rest.
I never reads book that leave out soil type and agricultural prices.  Thank goodness my world building hero, Tolkein, included a word about Longbottom Leaf in his prologue.    ;)
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Offline Yora

Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #13 on: February 22, 2015, 12:32:01 PM »
I think part of it is the common assumption that when in doubt, start at the beginning.

But in the end, a setting is just a setting for a story. Middle-Earth is a special case, because the creation of the elves and the relationship with the creator gods is the story he's telling in the Silmarilion. In the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he wisely left those parts out completely.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Experiences with worldbuilding
« Reply #14 on: February 22, 2015, 02:24:49 PM »
I generally don't like origin myths that are considered literal truth. It's probably the atheist side of me influencing how I see it, but they often feel like a childish attempt at grandeur, and jolt me out of the story a bit. That's not to say that creation myths are always bad - in the real world the Maori creation myth is pretty cool for example - but it'll bug me if they're of any more importance than as metaphor or characterisation.

The world we're building came about when gravitational forces within a nebula formed a star and several orbiting planets, which then developed according to the laws of physics. Imaginative, no?  :P The different cultures in the world will have various creation myths that will play a small part in informing their cultural norms, and may or may not be included in the story itself.
I wish the world was flat like the old days, then I could travel just by folding a map.